What is splitting and how does it affect the way you think?

IMAGE VIA @studioannathoma/INSTAGRAM
WORDS BY Dasha Romanowski

Splitting is a common coping mechanism, but it can easily become destructive.

For most of my life, I’ve had a tendency to view things in black and white. From the people around me to my grades at school, I boxed my perspectives into a series of neat dichotomies with little ability to see the shades of grey in between.

Any perceived ‘failure’ on my part, like receiving a distinction on an essay rather than a high distinction, sent me spiralling into weeks-long episodes of self-loathing, while my successes made me feel invincible – until the pendulum swung, and something else would decimate my confidence.

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My childhood wasn’t exactly what I’d describe as breezy, and a tendency for overwhelming perfectionism and angsty introspection defined my earlier years. I always thought the high standards I set for myself contributed to my hyper-critical nature.

But after leaving an abusive relationship in my late teens, I found that this way of thinking only intensified. I drew a line in the sand between ‘perfect’ people – my close friends, other abuse survivors – and ‘evil’ people – anyone who associated with a known abuser, whether that was as a friend or just someone who liked their photo on Instagram once. There was never a middle ground.

My worldview narrowed to a strict binary that informed my every decision. Everything around me became either safe or unsafe, including people, places, even particular songs or smells that might trigger a memory of my ex and the pain he inflicted upon me.

My next relationship after my ex was volatile, although my partner at the time was far from abusive. I’d vacillate between adoring him to experiencing an all-consuming, searing betrayal and a desire to shut him out if he made the slightest misstep. I was codependent on him yet terrified of being hurt again, so I’d push him away while despairing over the fact that I was creating distance.

I knew that my behaviour was self-destructive and damaging to the people closest to me, including myself. After a year or two, I decided to seek therapy. It was there that my psychologist first diagnosed me with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and introduced me to the concept of splitting  something that fundamentally changed the way I view myself and helped me understand why I was so quick to jump from one extreme to another.

What is splitting?

Splitting is a thinking style where people view the world in a series of absolutes and categorise their experiences in one of two ways – good/bad, success/failure, always/never.

Dr Gemma Sharp, a Senior Research Fellow at Monash University and practising clinical psychologist, explains that splitting is a common coping mechanism that most often occurs when people are attempting to make sense of a difficult situation. By ‘splitting’ the situation into a dichotomy and removing the nuances, it becomes easier to understand and less stressful to deal with.

I now understand that my tendency to lump people and situations into rigid categories was my way of trying to protect myself after my world was shaken by trauma. My mind was a confused mess of anger, grief and fear, so rather than viewing my overwhelming experiences and emotions as a boundless continuum, I whittled them down to a binary to help me cope.

How can splitting impact your life?

Although splitting can affect any area of life, Dr Sharp says that she predominantly sees it in her work as a psychologist in the context of relationships.

“If you see people in relationships as either angels or devils or good or bad, then you’re going to have difficulty trusting people. You might fear other people’s intentions, and if someone seemingly does ‘wrong’ by you, you’d probably be very quick to end the relationship,” she explains.

Some people may avoid pursuing relationships entirely because of their fear and mistrust, while others may get into relationships too quickly and become codependent. As a result, splitting can impact your ability to form genuine, trusting connections with people or sabotage existing relationships.

Splitting can also impact the way you perceive your performance in work and study, leading to stress, anxiety, depression and issues with low self-esteem.

“Splitting can mean that you believe your performance is all perfect or all terrible, whereas most of the time, you’re in between. For example, if you got 99 per cent in a test, you might consider that to be a ‘fail’ compared to the ‘perfection’ of 100 per cent when, in reality, 99 per cent is an excellent result,” Dr Sharp explains.

“This style of thinking can lead to setting a standard of what you think you have to achieve, and anything less than that is not good enough. And that has a huge impact on self-esteem.”

Isn’t splitting a borderline personality disorder (BPD) thing?

While learning about splitting helped me to unpack my behaviours, I found that researching it outside of therapy was confusing. There are plenty of resources available about splitting online, but they largely discuss it as a symptom of BPD.

Dr Sharp explains that although the term ‘splitting’ is most commonly associated with BPD, it isn’t exclusive to the diagnosis and can occur in people with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD and PTSD among others. It can also be referred to as ‘black and white thinking’, ‘all or nothing thinking’, ‘dichotomous thinking’ and ‘polarised thinking’.

“We do tend to refer to splitting in the personality disorder category, but it’s a part of a lot of different diagnoses. In fact, people who would consider their mental health to be quite good can still fall prey to this style of thinking. We’re all capable of it at times,” says Dr Sharp.

How do I identify splitting and work to overcome it?

Without having an initial understanding of what splitting is, it’s hard to realise you’re doing it.

“If you’ve had an extensive trauma background from a young age, this style of thinking would come very naturally in an attempt to protect yourself from further trauma. It can be hard to identify this style of thinking within yourself because if it’s something you’ve always done, you would think it’s just how you are made,” Dr Sharp says.

If you notice behaviours that are impacting your relationships, job or study, Dr Sharp says it’s important to speak with a therapist to better understand why they may be occurring. Doing so can give you a framework to help unpack your thoughts and identify your triggers, which for splitting could look like receiving exam results, getting into an argument with someone or making a mistake at work.

“If you’ve spoken to your therapist and discovered that black and white thinking is something you engage in, simply the awareness of it is a major part of overcoming it. You can start to identify these thoughts and ask yourself if they’re actually true, and do a bit of a reality check with yourself,” Dr Sharp says.

“From my own clinical experiences, once I’ve introduced unhelpful thinking styles to clients, they’ll come back to me and say, ‘There’s one of my black and white thoughts’. They have a language for it and can then start to detach from those thoughts.”

That’s exactly what I found after learning about splitting. Once I understood what my brain was doing, I started noticing my thoughts and questioning if every assessment I made was correct.

And while I’m still prone to splitting when faced with complex situations, I now know how to take a step back and consider each situation as a unique set of circumstances. Today, I take comfort in seeing the shades of grey because being able to do so reminds me of how far I’ve come.

For more information on splitting, head here.

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